Sunday Biz: ‘The Rise And Stall Of Snowboarding’

Editor’s Note: When Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates, a market research and consulting firm that tracks the ski and snowboard industry, released the findings of his “The Rise and Stall of Snowboarding” report at this year’s NSAA conference, and subsequently in the NSAA Journal, it created a media blitz of concern around the decline of snowboarding. While the report does show concerning trends, there is a great deal of data and evidence that snowboarding is still growing and not stalling to the extent indicated. However, this article was undertaken and released as a call to action to get the industry focused on its future and provide  suggestions to increase participation.  Here is Fristoe’s article in its entirety. We’d like to hear your take in the comments.

By Nate Fristoe, Director, RRC Associates

Adaptation to change often defines success in both business and life.  When snowboarding emerged in the late eighties, the level of success in adapting to this change in technology was mixed at best.  As the equipment became more prominent at US ski resorts, many operators went through a process that looked a little like the stereotypical stages of grief.  At first there was denial; “This is just a fad, it will never catch on.”  Then anger; “Not on my mountain they won’t.”  Then bargaining; “We’ll let them on a few slopes and see how it goes.”  And finally, acceptance; “Their money is green and they buy lift tickets, so maybe we can make this work after all.”  Collectively one could argue we’ve been in the snowboarding “acceptance stage” since the mid-1990s, but acceptance unchecked leads to complacence.  Today, there is every indication that the growth in snowboarding we took for granted has stalled and visitation from snowboarding is headed towards a path of substantial decline.  The following briefly summarizes the current state of snowboarding and examines what may be done to boost growth in this segment in the future.

The Current Situation

In order to understand what is happening with snowboarding today it is essential to begin with a look at the historic data and see how these numbers have evolved over time.  NSAA has actively tracked the growth of snowboarding since the 1991/92 season when operators were asked to estimate the percent of their visitation accounted for by snowboarders on the Kottke End of Season Survey.  In addition, starting in the winter of 1996/97, snowboarding was added as part of an equipment type question on the NSAA National Demographic Survey.  The former of the two research instruments usually has a greater number of resorts contributing data but relies on operator estimates, which in some cases are quite precise and in other cases are based on guess work.  In contrast, the NSAA National Demographic Survey represents fewer resorts but is based on on-mountain interviews conducted systematically throughout the season.

Regardless of which data source is considered, both metrics describe a similar pattern of growth and stall.  The proportion of visits accounted for by snowboarding showed robust growth during the nineties.  In fact, based on this pattern of growth many working in the industry in the 1990s might have reasonably anticipated that by 2011/12, anywhere from 35 to 45 percent of domestic visits would be accounted for by snowboarders.  If that future had played out snowboarding participants could have boosted the total number of active snow sports participants in the U.S. to well north of the average estimate of a little over 10 million and pushed total U.S. visits consistently above the 60 million mark.

Figure 1
U.S. Snowboarders as a Percentage of Total Visits to U.S. Resorts:  1991/92 to 2011/12

Figure 2
Estimated Number of Active U.S. Snowboarders
Snowboarders as a Percent of U.S. Active Participant Base:
1996/97 to 2011/12

But that future never happened. Instead, snowboarding’s strong growth trajectory essentially leveled off following the 2001/02 season, hitting a ceiling of about 32 percent in terms of total domestic visits.  In addition, U.S. snowboarding participants accounted for only about 25 percent of snow sports participants in 2011/12, a number almost unchanged from the prior season and essentially flat since 2005/06.  Overall, the numbers tell a story contrary to the message embraced by the media and many in the industry (think Shaun White, X Games, Gretchen Bleiler, and the Dew Tour).  Instead, the numbers suggest that the industry is approaching a tipping point for snowboarding that will represent a significant challenge for snow sports; in addition, they also suggest that a path forward will require more than just passive acceptance.


To be frank, some resort operators may be a little ambivalent about snowboarding’s failure to deliver on the growth envisioned in the 1990s.  Some operators witness these trends with a quiet schadenfreude, thinking it merely confirms what they had suspected all along.  Others look at the numbers and don’t see how their resort is directly affected; they argue their operation is insulated from this trend.  Still others see the numbers and understand the magnitude of the opportunity cost the industry has suffered.  Figure 3 presents the best estimate of how much business has been lost each season as a result of snowboarding’s stall, and also shows how those losses have grown over time.  Last season alone the likely opportunity cost was at least 3.1 million domestic snowboarding visits, a number the industry can hardly afford to ignore.

Figure 3
Annual Estimated Opportunity Cost in Domestic Visits since 2005/06

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